The Oklahoman

Impatient administra­tion needs epistemic humility

- George Will Columnist George Will writes for The Washington Post Writers Group, and his email address is

WASHINGTON — Eighty years ago, there was a notable U.S. intelligen­ce failure: A Japanese fleet crossed the Pacific undetected until 6:10 a.m. Hawaii time, Dec. 7, 1941, when the minesweepe­r USS Condor sighted a submarine’s periscope, 105 minutes before the attack began. Since then, there have been other intelligen­ce failures: About the Bay of Pigs and the fragility of the Castro regime, about the 1968 Tet Offensive in Vietnam, about 9/11, about Iraq’s weapons of mass destructio­n.

In 1992, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., remembered a warning by CIA Director Allen Dulles (who would become a Washington casualty of the Bay of Pigs) in 1959 that the Soviet Union’s economy was humming so efficiently that by 1970 the gap between the Soviet and U.S. economies would be dangerousl­y narrow. But, then, the 1957 Gaither Commission projected that the Soviet gross domestic product would surpass the U.S. GDP in 1993. (The sclerotic Soviet Union did not live that long.) Moynihan noted that in 1987 the CIA reported that East Germany’s per capita GDP was higher than West Germany’s, an assessment that “any taxi driver in Berlin” could have refuted.

In the aftermath of the U.S. government’s misunderst­anding of the Afghan regime’s durability and the Taliban’s capability, clearly in foreign policy, as well as domestic policy, the government needs a dose of epistemic humility. Epistemolo­gy is the field of philosophy concerned with the nature and limits of knowledge.

Domestical­ly, the Biden administra­tion speaks breezily about “transformi­ng” the financial and energy components of the nation’s almost $23 trillion economy, oblivious about possible unintended consequenc­es. In foreign policy, a chastened administra­tion needs to tailor its objectives to fit its ability to know what it does not know.

In 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson called the United States “the locomotive at the head of mankind.” Europe was recuperati­ng, Asia’s economic developmen­t had barely begun and U.S. prestige had soared because of its prodigies of war production.

Forty years later, as the Berlin Wall was being chipped into souvenirs and the Soviet Union was a year from extinction, former U.N. ambassador Jeane Kirkpatric­k published an article whose title expressed her expectatio­n and the nation’s yearning in 1990: During the Cold War, foreign policy had acquired “an unnatural importance,” but now the United States could again be “A Normal Country in a Normal Time.”

The U.S. holiday from history lasted 11 years. It ended with the thundercla­p of 9/11, which shattered longstandi­ng assumption­s about technology and civilizati­on advancing in tandem.

Today, with the United States facing a near-peer adversary in muscle-flexing China, and with malign nonstate actors worldwide euphoric about the U.S. stumble out of Afghanista­n, there will be U.S. domestic pressures for focusing on (in Barack Obama’s phrase) “nation-building here at home.” However, Robert Kagan, writing in Foreign Affairs, reminds us:

“In the 1950s, during the Eisenhower administra­tion — often seen as a time of admirable restraint in U.S. foreign policy — the United States had almost one million troops deployed overseas, out of a total American population of 170 million.

Today, in an era when the United States is said to be dangerousl­y overextend­ed, there are roughly 200,000 U.S. troops deployed overseas, out of a population of 330 million.”

Americans are impatient, eager to stop thinking about their enemies, who are implacable. This is a dangerous asymmetry.

Americans are impatient, eager to stop thinking about their enemies, who are implacable. This is a dangerous asymmetry.

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